To win in soccer you need all 11 players on the pitch to contribute. However, there are times when some players stand out above the rest due to magnificent individual performances. Some of them can lead their teammates to victory by playing the game of their life, but others can keep it up over the length of an entire tournament.
This list is aimed at recognizing 10 players whose amazing efforts stood the World Cup on its head throughout the years. It consists of 10 incredible individual performances which made the headlines back then and are still talked about today. Some of the efforts resulted in World Cup triumphs for their nations, while others fell just short. But they were all inspiring performances which will never be forgotten.
10. Garrincha – 1962
Many fans thought reigning World Cup champs Brazil wouldn’t be able to hold onto their title in Chile in 1962 because superstar Pele was knocked out of the event with an injury in the second game. However, Garrincha (Manuel Francisco dos Santos) saved the day with his four tournament goals and amazing playmaking and dribbling skills. He was also named to the All-Star squad. Not bad for somebody who was afflicted with a deformed spine at birth. Garrincha shared the 1962 Golden Boot with five other players, but it was his overall play that stood out, especially in the quarter-finals against England. He scored twice in that match and dominated over the 90 minutes during Brazil’s 3-1 win. He twisted defenders inside out and led his team to its second straight World Cup. He was easily the best player in the event as he added two more goals in a 4-2 win against the hosts in the semifinal before starring against Czechoslovakia in the 3-1 Final victory.
9. Johan Cruyff – 1974
Dutch genius Johann Cruyff captained his team in the 1974 World Cup and even though they were downed 2-1 by hosts West Germany in the Final, he was named the tournament’s best player. Holland was in the ‘Total Football’ mode at the time with Cruyff leading the way and was clearly one of the world’s best ever players. Unfortunately, the 1974 World Cup was the only one he’d play in even though he didn’t retire until 1984. The attacking midfielder scored twice against Argentina in and added another in a win over defending champions Brazil. However, Holland met their match in the Final against West Germany. Cruyff went on to manage Ajax and Barcelona after hanging up the boots and won too many awards as a player to mention, including three Ballon d’Or’s.
8. Eusebio – 1966
Pele had some stiff competition as the word’s greatest player in 1966 from none other than Portuguese legend Eusebio, who was actually born in Mozambique. The striker proved he was one of the best in history throughout his career with 790 goals in 806 games in all competitions. His peak performance undoubtedly came at the 1966 World Cup in England where he won the Golden Boot with nine goals. ‘The Black Panther’ had a tremendous right foot and was also gifted with exceptional speed and power. His high point of the 1966 World Cup came in the quarterfinals against North Korea. The Portuguese were in shock as they trailed 3-0 after just 25 minutes, but Eusebio took the reins as he scored four times in a row to lead his team to a dramatic 5-3 win. He added another in the semifinal against England, but the eventual cup winners downed Portugal 2-1.
7. Walter Zenga – 1990
One of the greatest goaltending performances in the World Cup took place in 1990 when Walter Zenga of Italy went a tournament record 517 minutes without allowing a goal. Zenga recorded five straight clean sheets as Italy hosted the tournament, but remarkably he wasn’t named to the All-Star team and the hosts didn’t win the cup. The Italians had to settle for third place by beating England 2-1 in the consolation match while West Germany edged Argentina 1-0 in the Final. Zenga’s feat has stood the test of time so far and it may never be beaten. Zenga shutout Austria, Czechoslovakia and the United States in the group stage and held Uruguay and the Republic of Ireland off the score sheet in the knockout rounds. Italy then drew Argentina 1-1 in the semifinals, but lost 4-3 in a penalty shootout.
6. Geoff Hurst – 1966
Only one man has managed to score a hat trick in a World Cup Final and that was Geoff Hurst of England at Wembley back in 1966. Hurst led the hosts to a controversial 4-2 victory over West Germany in extra time for England’s one and only senior World Cup triumph. The forward was an accomplished scorer who netted over 300 goals in his career with none of them being as important as the three he scored on July 30th, 1966. Hurst scored four goals in the tournament, but the three that mattered the most came in the 18th, 101st and 120th minute of the Final. Germany tied the game 2-2 with just over a minute to play, but Hurst put England ahead after 11 minutes of extra time. Nobody knows if the ball crossed the goal line or not, but he put the game out of reach with his third goal nine minutes later.
5. Gerd Muller – 1970
West Germany came in third place in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico with a 1-0 win over Uruguay, but the offensive star of the tournament was All-Star Team member Gerd Muller. The German striker scored the third-most 14 goals in his World Cup career with 10 of them coming at the event in Mexico. He easily walked away with the 1970 Golden Boot and tied a tournament record along the way with two consecutive hat tricks. He scored three times against Bulgaria in a 5-2 win in the group stage and then banged in another three against Peru three days later in a 3-1 triumph over Peru. Muller scored an incredible 68 goals in 62 appearances with West Germany and added 653 goals in 707 club games during his career, making him pone of the most lethal strikers the world has ever seen.
4. Sandor Kocsis – 1954
Sandor Kocsis may not be the most recognizable footballer to today’s fans, but the Hungarian forward certainly made a name for himself at his only World Cup appearance in Switzerland in 1954. Kocsis made the All-Star squad, took home the Golden Boot and set several records due to his 11-goal outburst. He went four games with at least two goals and scored two hat tricks, which came in consecutive games. Kocsis was tremendous with his head and managed to score 75 times in 68 appearances for his homeland. He scored three goals in a 9-0 rout over South Korea and tallied four the next game in an 8-3 win over West Germany. Kocsis added two more in a 4-2 victory over Brazil in the quarterfinals before beating Uruguay 4-2 in the semis thanks to a pair of goals by Kocsis in extra time. The striker and his teammates ran out of gas in the Final though and were downed 3-2 by the Germans.
3. Diego Maradona – 1986
The great Diego Maradona hit his peak at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico where he led his Argentine teammates to a 3-2 win over West Germany in the Final. Maradona shared the Silver Boot as the tournament’s second-leading scorer with five goals, was named to the All-Star Team and captured the Golden Ball as the event’s top player. The attacking midfielder’s most memorable game was the 2-1 quarterfinal win over England in which he scored both goals. His first was the controversial ‘Hand of God’ marker which he punched in with his fist, but the second goal was arguably the greatest ever seen at a World Cup and is known as the ‘Goal of the Century.’ Maradona took the ball for a mesmerizing 50-yard solo run, turned five England defenders every which way but loose and then glided past goalkeeper Peter Shilton before depositing the ball in the net. He basically controlled and dominated the 1986 event with five goals and five assists and played every minute of every game.
2. Pele – 1958
Brazilian legend Pele was just 17 years old when he burst onto the scene at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. By the time he and his teammates downed the host nation 5-2 in the Final everybody knew who he was. He shared the Silver Boot as the second-top scorer with six goals, won the Best Young Player Award and was named to the All-Star squad. The young forward holds the record for being the youngest player to appear in a Final, the youngest scorer in a World Cup, the youngest to score in a Final and the youngest to record a World Cup hat trick, all of which he achieved in 1958. Pele would go on to set a couple of more records in later years and is the only male player to be awarded three World Cup winners’ medals. He was arguably the greatest footballer ever.
1. Just Fontaine – 1958
Although Pele won the World Cup in 1958 and was one of its stars, Just Fontaine set a record that will likely never be broken as he scored 13 goals in the tournament. The Moroccan-born French forward easily won the Golden Boot as he more than doubled the total of the Silver Boot winners Pele and Helmut Rahn who finished with six goals. Fontaine also made the All-Star Team, but just missed out on the Golden Ball Award. He shares World Cup records for scoring goals in six straight games, scoring at least twice in four consecutive contests and for his two hat tricks. Fontaine’s scoring heroics weren’t enough to lead France to the Final though as they had to settle for third place with a 6-3 win over West Germany in the consolation game. Fontaine scored 30 times in 21 games for France and stills ranks as the fourth-highest World Cup scorer of all time, which he managed to achieve in just six games in 1958.